US – Japanese relations from 1900 – 1930 where constantly changing for several different reasons. Public opinion, a world war, and conquest for new territory kept these two nations teetering on the edge of hostility for some time and World War II was partially the result of these turbulent relations. Over this thirty year span there were high and low points, and several different events caused these two then growing nations to collide. This essay will cover some of the major events and explain things from the Japanese as well as an American point of view.
Japanese / US Relations Before 1900
Relations between the Japanese and the United States started off rocky at best. Japan had been an isolationist state from the early 17th CE century when a western presence had a little more than just trade in mind. Actions of the West in China showed Japan that they would not be able to trust the Western powers to keep their word and stay out of politics in Japan. From that point on Japan had very little to do with the rest of the world until 1853.
On July 8th, 1853 four black ships led by the USS Powhatan and commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, anchored at Edo Bay; never before had the Japanese seen ships steaming with smoke. Matthew Perry brought a letter from the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, to the Emperor of Japan. He waited with his armed ships and refused to see any of the lesser dignitaries sent by the Japanese, insisting on dealing only with the highest emissaries of the Emperor. On March 31st, 1854 representatives of Japan and the United States signed a historic treaty. Negotiations went several months between Perry and Japanese officials on achieving the U.S goal of opening the doors of trade with Japan.
The Japanese government realized that their country was in no position to defend itself against a foreign power, and Japan could not retain its isolation policy without risking war. On March 31st, 1854 Perry received what he had so dearly worked for, a treaty with Japan. The treaty provided for:
· Peace and friendship between the United States and Japan.
· Opening of two ports to American ships at Shimoda and Hakodate
· Help for any American ships wrecked on the Japanese coast and protection for shipwrecked persons
· Permission for American ships to buy supplies, coal, water, and other necessary provisions in Japanese ports.
Needless to say this forced treaty left a bitter taste in the mouth of Japanese conservatives and this action by the United States government would be a constant reminder to the Japanese of how Western powers handled peoples and nations that were not cut from the same cloth.
Another aspect of the big picture in regards to Japanese / US relations before 1900 was the land grab in the Pacific that led into and continued into the early 20th century. In this aspect both the Japanese as well of the United States were guilty of being malicious to native peoples as well as other world and regional powers.
The time frame in question marked the beginning of American Imperialism in the Pacific with the Spanish – American War and the subsequent acquisition of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and a very pro US government in Cuba. The lands gained by the United States during this war were not the only lands acquired in the Pacific Ocean. American Samoa was gained in the Treaty of Berlin in 1899; in 1900 Hawaii officially became territory of the United States although the United States government had meddled in the island nation’s politics long before this. The Midway Islands were discovered July 8, 1859 by Captain N.C. Brooks and annexed by the United States; the Wake Islands were discovered by the British in 1796 and annexed by the U.S. in 1899. All these islands that were being annexed by the United States was drawing the United States closer and closer to Asia and by default lands that Japan may have wanted as their own.
On the other hand Japan is not innocent of having imperial aspirations at this time. Many of these lands that were acquired by the United States would have possibly been acquired by the Japanese if they were in the position to but when the united States was expanding in the Pacific Japan was occupied with other regional powers such as Russia and China; significant Japanese expansions came in the early 20th century.
Although Japan did not acquire a great deal of new lands in the late 19th century it did put the machine in motion and made expansion in the 20th century possible. Japan was involved in the Sino – Japanese War which sealed the fate of Qing China maybe decades sooner than it would have went without being disgraced in this war. The Sino – Japanese War essentially established that there were two major powers in the region, Japan and Russia; in the early 20th century a war with the Japanese as well as a communist revolution would eliminate Russia from the shared seat of power and leave Japan as the major regional power and a growing international power as well.
One of the direct results of the Sino – Japanese War was that Taiwan came directly under Japanese control. Some Chinese ports also became open to Japanese manufactured goods and Japanese factories. These gains gave the Japanese the confidence to become an imperial power in the region over the next several decades. Japan’s thirst for new lands in the early 20th century all but established Japan as the regional power and the peace treaty from this particular war was brokered by none other than the United States.
The Russo – Japanese War and the Treaty of Portsmouth
After the Sino – Japanese War, three regional powers in the Far East were narrowed down to two rival powers in Japan and Russia. The Sino – Japanese War limited the power of the Qing Empire in China and caused sent the Empires of Japan and Russia on a collision course. The Russo – Japanese War was considered the first great war of the 20th century and its origins can be found in territorial ambitions of Japan and Russia and their individual quests to control the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria. Russia wanted to establish a warm weather port on the Pacific Ocean and the Japanese were determined to keep Russia from accomplishing this goal. Negotiations between Russia and Japan had gone on for almost a decade with no success before they finally went to war in 1904.
After a year of fighting the war was not closer to establishing a resolution than before the war. Although the Japanese were effective in winning many battles they were where also not able to end Russian ambition in the region. One of the major reasons Russia wanted to bring the war to an end is not because they did not think they could defeat the Japanese but rather growing unrest in Russia limited their ability to wage war. The embarrassing string of defeats inflamed the Russian people's dissatisfaction with their inefficient and corrupt Tsarist government, and proved a major cause of the Russian Revolution of 1905.
With the Japanese in a firm control of the fighting and Russia now dealing with larger problems in their eyes Russia as well as Japan to an extent wanted peace. The United States, who were worried by what they saw going on between these two powers decided to step in and negotiate a peace between the two warring powers. One of the main goals of the United States in mediating this was to make sure that neither power became too powerful as a result of this treaty. The United States as well as other traditional western powers preferred in fighting between the regional powers of East Asia like Russia, Japan, and China because this enabled Western powers to take advantage of the situation. The Treaty of Portsmouth negotiations took place in Portsmouth, NH and were signed on September 5th 1905. Theodore Roosevelt received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring an end to this conflict.
In accordance with the treaty, both Japan and Russia agreed to evacuate Manchuria and return its sovereignty to China, but Japan was leased the Liaodong Peninsula (containing Port Arthur and Talien), and the Russian rail system in southern Manchuria with access to strategic resources. Japan also received the southern half of the Island of Sakhalin from Russia. Although Japan gained a great deal from the treaty, it was not nearly as much as the Japanese public had been led to expect, since Japan's initial negotiating position had demanded all of Sakhalin and a monetary indemnity as well.
The aftermath of the treaty was different for the three major players in helping bring the war to an end. The United States achieved what it wanted; neither Russia or Japan were entirely strong enough to control the region and they were able to continue their Pacific advance with little to slow them down.
The Russian government suffered a severe fate after the Treaty of Portsmouth. The Russian government was never able to rebound from the defeat in the Russo – Japanese and limped on for the next several years. The Russian people felt betrayed by their government and within 15 years a small revolution movement would overthrow the ruling Tsarist regime.
The Japanese people on the other hand were not exactly pleased with the result of the war either. The Japanese people saw where they had achieved massive military victories but attained very little and taxes were even raised by the government to help offset the costs of the war. Revolts were held in Japan as well as Russia, the main difference between the two revolts is that the Japanese revolts accomplished reform to the government as where the Russian revolution’s goal was a complete overhaul of the system.
In the 80 plus years of US / Japanese relations that occurred before World War II, the time that Theodore Roosevelt was in office was the most successful and the most peaceful. Although tensions during this era were not completely void, Roosevelt did an excellent job in trying to keep minor incidents from snowballing into major issues.
Racial Tensions Grow in the United States
Although under Theodor Roosevelt the US maintained decent relations with Japan, this was also an era of growing racial tensions in the United States with Japanese immigrants. Roosevelt himself was not innocent of being a racist as well as many Americans in this time frame of American history. President Theodore Roosevelt declared, "The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages" and openly spoke of cementing the rule of "dominant world races.”(1) In line with the concepts of the "Manifest Destiny" of white Anglo-Americans to conquer lands inhabited by "inferior" races of Native Americans and Mexicans, and the "White Man's Burden" of Europeans' obligation to introduce civilization to the "primitive" people of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, American foreign policy in the early 20th century had racial overtones of a "superior" race destined to rule the world. The Japanese were just as guilty of being racist but there were a small number of whites in Japan as opposed to a seemingly larger amount of Japanese on the western coast of America.
In the Pacific States, racism was primarily directed against the resident Asian immigrants. Several immigration laws discriminated against the Asians, and at different points the ethnic Chinese or other groups were banned from entering the United States. Non-whites were prohibited from testifying against whites, a prohibition extended to the Chinese by People v. Hall.(2) The Japanese as well as the Chinese were often subject to harder labor on the First Transcontinental Railroad and often performed the more dangerous tasks such as using dynamite to make pathways through the mountains. The San Francisco Vigilance Movement, although ostensibly a response to crime and corruption, also systematically victimized Irish immigrants, and later this was transformed into mob violence against East Asian immigrants.
In the ensuing inquests and trials, all the perpetrators either were acquitted, or received only light punishments for lesser offenses, because the testimony of Asian witnesses was either completely inadmissible, or else considered less credible than that of others.
Japanese immigrants had been welcomed in California, Oregon, and Washington in the late 19th century. Their perceived hard work, clean habits, and entrepreneurial spirit were welcomed in most west coast communities at this time. However, in time these very traits began to fester with Japanese farm workers engaged in collective labor actions when they felt they were being cheated. Even worse, Japanese laborers quickly moved from contract labor to sharecropping and then to outright purchase of land which made many West Coasters uncomfortable. Japanese businesses, like restaurants, began to compete with white-owned businesses. Some Japanese began to accumulate wealth. One, George Shima, amassed 28,000 acres of land, and was dubbed the "potato king" of California. Whites were fine with Japanese immigrants as long as they complied with the unspoken cast system; non-white immigrants who wished to be treated as equals were not wanted in this region at this time.
The series of insults began in 1905 with a unanimous resolution by both houses of the California Legislature that asked Congress to limit Japanese immigration. The resolution asserted that Japanese laborers "by reason of race habits… are undesirable," that the Japanese added nothing to the prosperity of the state, and that:
“Now not less than five hundred [Japanese] each month [are] landed at the port of San Francisco [and] we cannot but regard with the greatest sense of danger and disaster, the prospect that the close of the war between Japan and Russia will surely bring to our shores hordes, to be counted only in thousands, of the discharged soldiers of the Japanese Army, who will crowd the State with immoral, intemperate, quarrelsome men, bound to labor for a pittance, and to subsist on a supply with which a white man can hardly sustain life.”(4)
These conditions of segregation and legislation continued up into the outbreak of World War II and a case could be made that these actions made the creation of Internment Camps for Japanese American citizens during World War II even more realistic because the hatred was already there.
World War I: Japanese Expansion in the Far East
The era leading up to and during World War I was an interesting era in this relationship. Leading into the war many believed that Japan and the United States would be at war within a couple years; by the end of World War I tensions had subsided slightly because of attentions being averted to Europe and the fights there and in Russia. Japan was able to fly under the radar during World War I and when the war ended and the smoke had cleared, only one regional power was standing in the Far East and that was Japan.
Leading into US involvement in World War I there was a great deal on tension between the United States and Japan. One of the m any things that drew the United States into war was the Zimmerman Note. The Zimmerman Note was a 1917 diplomatic proposal from the German Empire to Mexico to make war against the United States. The proposal was declined by Mexico, due to a Civil War in the country, but angered Americans and led in part to a U.S. declaration of war in April. The reason the Zimmerman Note is relevant is because it called for a Japanese / Mexican alliance to attack the United States. The Japanese were already establishing ties with Mexico for different reasons but with the note coming to light this just made the US even more nervous about the Mexican government as well as the Japanese government. In the end the Japanese nor the Mexican government decided not to attack not because of an alliance with the United States but rather it would be counterproductive towards their long term goals.
Japan inevitably entered into World War I on the side of the Entente Powers; with a bequest from the British, the Japanese helped secure shipping lanes in the Pacific from the German navy. Japan had several reasons for intervening in World War I on the side of the English. Japan knew that befriending one of the “white nations” was in their best interest. World War I came out these alliances and Japan thirsted for being a world power and they would not be able to accomplish this without befriending a Western nation.
Japan also wanted to take advantage of some of its weaker neighbors and territory that they may be able to acquire while western powers were occupied in Europe with World War I. Parts of China, Manchuria, and many German colonies fell under Japanese control after World War I and this was the result of them coming in on the right side on the right time.
From the end of World War I up until the start of World War II Japan became more militaristic in its leaders. Japanese progressives were pushed out of the government in place of the conservative imperialistic elements. The United States in this same time frame was slowly gearing up for war economically. Manufacturing was still a big part of the American economy at this time and production of munitions made the United States a lot of money during the First World War. This very manufacturing of munitions would make the United States a key element in the ally victory of the Second World War and helped fuel the Cold War between Soviet Russia and the United States afterwards.
When looking at Japanese / US relations in this time frame I have fault finding blame with just one side. Both nations were pretentious and wanted the same land. It was like to children fighting over a toy, eventually these imperial toddlers would throw down and they did that very thing in World War II.
1. Chomsky, Noam. Year 501: The Conquest Continues. Boston: South End, 1993.
2. "People v. Hall 4 Cal. 399 (California Supreme Court 1854)." UC Hastings College
of the Law. Web. 11 Apr. 2011. <http://www.uchastings.edu/racism-race/people-hall.html>.
3. Corson-Finnerty, Adam. "Japan-US Relations Before WWII." Musings of Mine.
25 Nov. 2006. Web. <http://musingsofcorsonf.blogspot.com/2006/11/japan-us-relations-before-wwii.html>.
4. Corson-Finnerty, Adam. "Japan-US Relations Before WWII." Musings of Mine.
25 Nov. 2006. Web. <http://musingsofcorsonf.blogspot.com/2006/11/japan-us-relations-before-wwii.html>.